This crazy docuseries, The Way Down, has everything from cult leadership and torture to deception and murder. The only thing it doesn’t explain is why and how Gwen Shamblin’s hair got so big.
The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin is a Max Original docuseries. The first three episodes are available now on HBO Max with the final two episodes coming in early 2022.
Gwen Shamblin is the mastermind behind a trendy weight-loss program called the “Weigh Down Workshop”. The thought behind it was to teach people to only eat when their body told them to. So, you’d only eat as a result of your stomach rumbling. For those who may be unfamiliar with diet and nutrition methods, this falls along the lines of a simple interval diet, but, the twist with the WDW was incorporating God. Any downtime you had should be focused on God and prayer. America is a country that doesn’t have an official religious identity, but the southeastern portion of the country leans heavily on christian beliefs. Once word of the program spread, it was off to the races and WDW infected TV media and churches across the country.
The first episode of the series entitled, “The Kingdom”, opens with news of a deadly plane crash. That tragic incident drew public attention to Remnant Fellowship. Remnant wasn’t just your average, everyday church either. Remnant Fellowship was a Christian-diet-program-turned-church, if you’ve ever heard of or seen such a thing. This is where audiences are introduced to Gwen Shamblin Lara, the weight-loss guru turned church leader who built an empire in Brentwood, TN.
A theme throughout the docuseries is the absolute sandbagging of the Christian denomination – Church of Christ (Gwen’s background). So as a former member myself, I can speak to a vast majority of what the witnesses and experts spoke on. Yes, it’s an extremely conservative denomination. Most Churches of Christ haven’t adjusted to modern-day needs and are usually very segregated (i.e.- Most lack online and streaming services and the demographics are usually one or the other – predominately black or white). Another component that turns people off is the role of women. For 30-plus years of my life, I witnessed men speaking from the pulpit, men serving communion, and men leading in song. In person, I had never seen a woman preach before. Now for some people, that’s not a big deal, but for others, it’s a deal breaker. Some went as far to say it was the most conservative denomination in all Christianity and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. What I can say is, like the conservative party of our country, they aren’t very open-minded when it comes to race, women, and progressive thinking at all. To that effect, my experience worshipping and volunteering at various COC’s across the country have been great. But with everything the 2016 administration brought with it (and that toxicity crept into everything, including the Church), I decided it was time for something new.
Gwen’s personal life and decision making weren’t lining up with what she was preaching and people started to take notice. In “A Family Affair”, we get a magnifying look at current and past relationships. Gwen’s children, her romantic life, and specific members of the church, get a closer look as we learn details of the past. As Gwen’s appearance starts to change and shaky choices cause people to pause, it makes way for people to question the church’s finances.
Life at Remnant Fellowship was made clear by a few of its former members. Most say the whole act of happiness and perfection was just a worn-out façade. It took many of them years to start questioning the actions of the church and how everything ran through Gwen. Remember earlier how I said the Church of Christ handled roles for women? They didn’t exist, just like instruments for music (that was another big no-no). Somehow, in this specific church, Gwen, a woman, did the majority of the preaching and her son played guitar. In any Church of Christ across America, that would’ve caused major friction. I’ve literally witnessed churches split because of newfound interest in instruments and/or women preaching. But Gwen found a way to make Remnant its own isolated entity, even down to its societal existence. Members only associated amongst themselves and went to great lengths to provide everything in-house. From dental work to childcare and even schooling, she went well out of her way to make the church as self-sufficient as possible.
The final episode of the first part of the series, “Seen But Not Heard”, sees matters taking a turn for the worst. The church gets embroiled in legal affairs, former members are starting to speak out, church attorneys are kept busy, and rampant abuse makes its way to the surface. Not to mention a tragedy so heartbreaking that it threatens to upend the future of the church.
I give The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin an 8.5 out of 10. It’s a documentary that literally has it all. I never thought I’d see the day where a church would be built from a weight-loss program. That was another odd quirk of that church, Shamblin’s obsession that congregants stayed fit. Not only is this docuseries interesting, but what’s better is that its not over. 2022 will bring us two more episodes and who knows what could happen between now and then.
Click now to watch The Way Down on HBO Max.